For a spell in young adulthood, Edward Carey was a frozen docent at Madame Tussauds in London.
“We were there to prevent cruelty to wax dolls,” says Carey, who was bodily incorporated among the waxworks, tasked with standing stock-still until gawkers got grabby, in which case he’d momentarily reanimate to admonish: Don’t touch!
“It’s the least-skilled job in perhaps all the world,” he says, “but nothing was more fun than to go down into the Chamber of Horrors and keep very, very, very still outside Charles Manson’s family cage.”
For Carey, this curious occupation ignited an intense fascination in the craft and times of Anne Marie Grosholtz, the plucky businesswoman who would become Madame Tussaud, bringing the French Revolution to (still) life for the early-19th-century British public. (Carey would become a novelist, visual artist, and playwright especially known for exquisite self-illustrated fictions, like Observatory Mansions and the Iremongertrilogy.)
Thus was Little born—a stunning, loving fictionalization of the life of Madame Tussaud, 15 years in the making. Little is “a quirky, compelling story that deepens into a meditation on mortality and art,” Kirkus’ critic writes.
“My mother had a large nose, in the Roman style,” Carey writes, as young “Marie,” in Chapter 1 of Little. “My father, so I would come to believe, had a strong chin that pointed a little upward. That chin and that nose, it seems, fitted together....I nosed and chinned my way into life. I was, certainly, unaware then of what extraordinary bodies I should come to know, of what vast buildings I would inhabit, of what bloody events I would find myself trapped within, and yet, it seems to me, my nose and my chin already had some inkling of it all. Nose and chin, such armor for life. Nose and chin, such companions. To begin with, for always, there was love.”
Tragedies befall mother and father; Marie winds up a ward of Doctor Curtius, a young wax sculptor, of Bern, who supplies surgeons with alarmingly accurate models of appendages and viscera. Marie soon displays an aptitude for assisting in the workshop, and so, when Curtius is forced to flee to Paris, he takes her, too.
This much we know about the “real” Tussaud, though it seems much of the rest of her life may be open to interpretation.
“The thing about her is, she was incredibly smart and she was an incredibly good businesswoman,” Carey says. “There are so many things she said that happened in her life—that she was in [Versailles] with Madame Élisabeth, that she happened to be in prison with Joséphine [de Beauharnais]—and there’s often very little evidence there to back up her claims. She spins herself the most incredible story. She’s become a myth, and that’s what’s so exciting about her.”
Though we may never know the whole truth, “what is true is a little wizened waxwork at Baker Street in London,” he says, “and that’s so loaded with personality, I do think it feels like it’s actually dropped out of a fairy tale.”
Little sees Marie through royal servitude, the French Revolution, imprisonment, and escape, all the while commemorating, in waxworks and sketches, her everyday impressions of a truly momentous time.
“What I was so excited about in this novel, and in my Victorian trilogy as well, is following the lives of the little people caught up in big history,” says Carey, who drew the book’s illustrations from Marie’s point of view. “Whatever happened—and her life must have been incredibly harsh, at times—she’s an absolute survivor.”
Megan Labrise is a staff writer and co-host of the Fully Booked podcast.